In 1492, having driven Islamic forces from the Iberian peninsula, Ferdinand and Isabella forced its Sephardic Jewish population into exile. The Diaspora sent refugees to Portugal, northern Europe, North Africa, the Ottoman empire (where the majority settled) and the New World Spanish dominions. Half a millennium later, Sephardic song traditions flourish widely in Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Americas, as evident in the following recordings. Jacinta's Sephardic song interpretations convey a powerful vocal presence, self-accompanied on acoustic guitar. A Buenos Aires native who also speaks Yiddish and French, Jacinta infuses the Ladino or Judezmo (Judeo-Spanish) language and musical repertoire with vivid colorings that evoke the vocal styling of flamenco, Argentine folk song and tango, in a choice of familiar Sephardic traditional material (e.g., "Cascavela del amor," "Adío, querida," "La rose enflorece," "Yo me enamoré de un aire," "A la una"). Her vocal range and dramatically evocative voice animate the recording, reflecting her theatrical training and presence, all of which suggests that Jacinta is a performer perhaps best appreciated live, in the intimate social setting of this oral tradition's cultural genesis.
Ensemble Sarband - formed in Germany in 1986 - reflects the cross-cutting social history of the Diaspora itself. Founder, musical director, producer and university-trained musicologist Vladimir Ivanoff is a German of Bulgarian descent; the other members are Lebanese, Turkish, Turkish-German and English. The septet includes three subtle, captivating singers and a versatile range of medieval instrumentalists equally at home on ud, djura (long-necked lute), Renaissance lute, kemenge (fiddle), psaltry, ney (flute), shawm, bagpipe, kudüm (kettle drum) and percussion. Their repertoire illustrates the blending of Sephardic musical traditions with those of the many lands where they settled. Hence, with equal facility and feeling, they play wedding songs, narrative romances and lullabies from Bosnia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Palestine, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Andalusia. The album notes are thoroughly informative, and include bilingual lyrics.
La Rondinella formed in 1987 in Washington, DC. Their conservatory training and interest in ethnomusicological detail leads them to the extensive documentary legacy of Manuel Manrique de Lara, who collected some 2,000 texts and 400 tunes in Sephardic communities in the early 20th century. However, the group carefully makes no claims regarding the authenticity of their own choice of medieval instrumentation. They signal their scholarly grounding in European early music traditions, and note that while Sephardic song was traditionally vocal music, they perform some tunes as instrumentals. Singer Alice Kosloski brings a plaintive sweetness to the songs, backed by an elegant mix of lute, guitar, Gothic harp (a small, lap-held medieval descendant of King David's instrument), treble viol and its medieval variants (vielle and rebec), kamenj, recorder, crumhorn (a capped, double-reed instrument) and percussion. With an array of 27 tunes, the album aspires to a thorough exploration of the Sephardic repertoire. The notes provide historical context, and include a bilingual lyrical transcription.
While no single title can lay claim to the sweeping compass of Sephardic song, taken together, these albums comprise an engaging introduction to a living roots music tradition. In an era when the politics of cultural identity count for so much, these artists signify the diverse efforts underway to sustain and recuperate the Judeo-Spanish cultural, linguistic and historical heritage, an undertaking that has produced a musical renaissance of its own. - Michael Stone